Alfredo Ramos Martínez (1871-1946)
Alfredo Ramos Martínez (1871-1946)

Mujer con flores

Alfredo Ramos Martínez (1871-1946)
Mujer con flores
signed ‘Ramos Martínez’ (lower left)
oil on canvas
32 ¼ × 28 ¼ inches (81.9 × 71.8 cm.)
Painted circa 1932.
George Stern Fine Arts, Los Angeles.
Henry Burroughs, Beverly Hills.
Mary-Anne Martin Fine Art, New York.
Private collection, Texas.
M. Nieto and L. Stern, Alfredo Ramos Martínez & Modernismo, The Alfredo Ramos Martínez Research Project, 2009, p. 101 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

Lush hanging white floripondios frame the face of a young dark-skinned female figure. She stares out intently at the viewer, holding a charola filled with abundant colorful flowers to her cheek. A study in contrasts, Mujer con flores juxtaposes geometricized figuration such as the woman’s anatomically possible flattened hand gesture with the more curvilinear, hazy, and soft forms that comprise the organic richness surrounding her. The central figure’s simple crisp white dress contrasts with her skin, making her stand out from the vegetation that embraces and overtakes the half-length figure. Creating a mandorla effect with the plants that caress her form, Alfredo Ramos Martínez (1871 - 1946) turns this anonymous figure into an icon of pastoral indigeneity.

During his voluntary exile in Los Angeles (1929-1946), Ramos Martínez developed imagery that art historian Fausto Ramírez has called “a harmonious and organic utopia, a village populated by indigenous Mexicans.”[1] These subjects appealed to his U.S clients, specifically the Hollywood film community who became significant patrons of Mexican art, a group that included screenwriter Jo Swerling; the directors Dudley Murphy and Alfred Hitchcock; actors John Huston, Corinne Griffith, Charles Laughton, and Beulah Bondi; and couturier Edith Head. In both murals and easel paintings for such clients, Ramos Martínez created a series of Gauguinesque and primitivized representations of indigenous female figures that promoted a romanticized and idealized vision of Mexican culture as essentially bucolic and timeless. Ramos Martínez had depicted native Indians in his Mexican work. To be sure, he was one of the first modern artists to paint local Mexican subject matter specifically by working outdoors and with live Indian models (as opposed to copying classical plaster casts). Although he painted other subjects in Mexico such as mestizos or middle class interiors, in Los Angeles he almost exclusively called upon images of indigenous populations.

Ramos Martínez left behind an influential career in Mexico City as the Director of the Academy of San Carlos, where as a result of student protests against the outdated pedagogical methods and tastes of the school he founded the Open Air Schools or Escuelas de Pintura al Aire Libre (EPALs). The Academy opened the first EPAL in October of 1913 at Santa Anita Ixtapalapa on the outskirts of Mexico City. This effort cemented Ramos Martínez’s role as a critical figure in negotiating artistic styles between academic art and post-Revolutionary modernism. From a visual standpoint, as Jean Charlot has written, Ramos Martínez’s Impressionist-based aesthetic—producing works that emphasized light and color effects—“opened the doors wide for reform” in Mexico.[2] Ramos Martínez adapted a European aesthetic to the concerns and urgencies of the local environment. As such, he was a leader in the widespread modernist endeavor to reconcile Mexican subject matter and international styles.

In California, Ramos Martínez shifted the formal language for which he was predominantly known in Mexico. Moving from the Impressionism that he introduced in the 1920s, in Los Angeles he developed an art deco style that consists of hard-edged ornamental lines, faceted geometric forms, a realistic yet severe type of figuration, all conjoined within a Cubist-inflected compositional armature. Indeed, the slender, chiseled, and architectonic figurative forms in his easel paintings (including Mujer con flores), works on paper, and murals from this time incorporate the geometric elements of Los Angeles’s distinctive art deco buildings, reflecting a dialogue between the modern Mexican artist and his new urban milieu.[3] In the case of Mujer con flores, the slender and elongated form of the female figure who dons a white dress echoes the long white floripondio flowers that frame her face, bringing to mind the geometric forms of the many white art deco facades that dot the Los Angeles urbanscape.

The work Ramos Martínez produced in Los Angeles represented a critical formulation of Mexican modernism that gained currency—a figurative art that promoted non-threatening indigenous subject matter yet that still incorporated limited vanguard stylistic elements. This legible, alternative form of modernism emerged at a time when little avant-garde experimentation existed in Los Angeles.

When images by Mexican artists became popular in the United States, figurative and socially engaged art represented a viable form of modernist expression. During the turbulent 1930s, the cultural nationalism of artists such as Ramos Martínez formed part of the discourse on hemispheric concerns about “Americanism” in which artists sought to define their cultural production and values as distinct from that of Europe. A rural and folkloric vision of Mexico in the United States fueled the expectations of the general public for “simplicity” and folk values in modern Mexican art. Writers and social activists such as Stuart Chase looked to Mexico for spiritual guidance. His A Study of Two Americas, a 1931 romantic idyll, proposed a return to simpler times and a more “authentic” peasant culture that positioned the Americas in opposition to Europe.

Ramos Martínez also responded to the newfound interest in folk art itself. Los Angeles was home to the first major exhibition in the United States of Mexican folk art. In 1922, U.S. writer Katherine Anne Porter helped organize the exhibition, Outline of Mexican Popular Arts and Crafts, and wrote its accompanying catalogue. The exhibition established a precedent for pairing Mexican folk art with modern art in exhibitions intended solely for U.S. audiences, a practice that was later adapted by institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Furthermore, the interest in folk art and Mexican crafts spurred the revival of the craft industry in interior design. U.S. decorating magazines featured articles about Mexican tiles, colonial architecture, and lacquerware, among other subjects.[4] Ramos Martínez’s decorative, indigenista aesthetic must be therefore understood within this broader context, a significant episode in cultural relations between the U.S., and Mexico, one which especially played out in places with large Mexican populations such as Los Angeles.

Anna Indych-López, Associate Professor, Latin American Art History, The City College of New York and The Graduate Center, The City University of New York

* This essay excerpts passages from Anna Indych-López, “Alfredo Ramos Martinez: Indians, Hollywood, and the Los Angeles Times,” in MEX/LA: “Mexican” Modernism(s) in Los Angeles 1930-1985 exh. cat. (Long Beach, CA: The Museum of Latin American Art, 2011), 45-47.

1 Ramos Martínez moved with his family to Los Angeles as a result of seeking medical treatment in the United States for his sickly daughter. He returned to Mexico for a brief period between 1942 and 1945. Fausto Ramírez, “Alfredo Ramos Martínez,” in Modernizacion y modernismo en el arte mexicano (Mexico: UNAM, 2008), 401. Originally published in Un homenaje a Alfredo Ramos Martínez, 1871-1946 (Monterrey: Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, 1996), 57.
2 Jean Charlot, The Mexican Mural Renaissance, 1920-1925 (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1979), 47.
3 Art Deco was also gaining currency in Mexico in the 1920s, especially in architecture. Ramos Martínez seems not to have shown this influence until he arrived in Los Angeles.
4 See for example House and Garden, January 1928; Frances Flynn Paine, “La Casita en Cuernavaca: The Mexican Home of Dwight W. Morrow,” House Beautiful (October 1931).

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